Calif tracks saw
writing on wigwam

Oct 12, 2004 3:34 AM

One secret of successful poker, I learn from this newspaper’s experts and those now on national TV is to know when to fold’em.

Last week the racetracks of California and the state’s card clubs, knowing they were backing a loser, folded a $24 million hand. It was the biggest loss to native Americans since Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

The tracks and card clubs had poured those $24 million into Proposition 68, which remains on the Nov. 2 ballot but without further financial backing. Polls showed it had less than 40 percent public support before the withdrawal, and it now seems definitely doomed. It stipulates that if all Indian gaming tribes in California do not agree to pay 25 percent of their slot revenues to the state, 30,000 slots would be made available to five tracks and eleven card clubs. Churchill Downs reportedly sank $2.6 million into the campaign and Magna Entertainment $4.8 million before folding their hands.

Indian tribes currently operate more than 54,000 slots in California, at 53 casinos. They supposedly spent $35 million so far to beat Proposition 68, and to support Proposition 70, which proposes to extend the Indian monopoly on slots in the state for 99 years and give the Indian casinos unlimited gaming rights in return for an 8.8 percent tax on net gaming income.

Both 68 and 70 will be voted on next month. 68 seems gone. The fate of 70 is less certain. The Terminator running the state has bitterly opposed both issues, and has signed compacts with 10 tribes while fighting them.

Speaking of poker, as we were, the explosion of its popularity is the strongest example of the power of television since Richard Nixon’s beard and bumbling lost his debates with John Kennedy 44 years ago.

Poker has become a college and high school craze, and housewives who formerly thought of a full house as a Thanksgiving celebration now follow it as much, or more, than they do afternoon serials. It has turned poker players into national celebrities, and there is no surcease in sight.

This is a lesson that horse racing has never learned, and still doesn’t understand.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, spending millions on what it considers marketing, has been preaching largely to the choir. It is proud about its Saturday afternoon races, which interest few other than those already interested in racing. Until it ties some form of gambling to an exotic bet — not an easy task on television, but not impossible — or until it develops a racing show with talent and content and plot that can lure non-racing fans, like poker is doing with the masses, it is spinning its marketing wheels.

Finally, another bizarre chapter in the weird doings surrounding Vernon Downs, the harness track in upstate New York that was the latest profitable toy of sometimes Las Vegan Shawn Scott. The track is in debt $23 million to the Vegas lending firm Vestin Mortgage, and formerly was run by Patrick Bennett, now spending 22 years resting in a federal hospitality center for felons in Loretto, Penn.

Bennett was sent to the pen after two federal juries convicted him on 42 counts of fraud and perjury in 1999. He was ordered to forfeit $109 million, for allegedly cheating 10,000 victims out of a total of $790 million in an office furniture leasing scheme that has been called one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in American history.

Now Bennett has written from his cell to the bankruptcy court handling the Vernon Downs case, saying the track’s parent, Mid-State Raceway, owes him nearly 10 years of rent payments on equipment he says he still owns in the track’s hotel next to the grandstand.

A lawyer who represented creditors when Bennett filed bankruptcy in 1996 had an interesting comment on Bennett’s claim.

"I think the suggestion that anything anywhere was Patrick Bennett’s rather than something he stole money to buy is preposterous," attorney David Stolz said. "Patrick Bennett went into Chapter 7 bankruptcy and claimed he owned nothing. Now he claims he owns something. Gee, what a surprise."